My Little Airship: Part 1
The armor of the mighty Trottingham soldiers glinted in the moonlight, the infantry standing tall and proud, swords raised. Behind them two ranks of kerosene-powered trotting machines stood ready to fire, cannons aimed over the heads of the platoon. A zeppelin scouted no-pony’s land at the center of the battlefield, its black metal skin sparkling in the ominous black and orange sky.
The Dawnist infantry crouched behind their fortifications, knowing they stood no chance against the steel might of Emperor Blueblood’s Clanker empire. But a row of genetically altered manticores loomed behind them, ready to devour any who dared retreat.
The attack had almost begun when Princess Twilight Sparkle heard somepony outside her door.
She took a guilty step towards her door- then froze in place, using a sound amplifier spell. Trees stirred in a soft breeze outside, but otherwise the night was silent. Mother and Father were at the Appaloosan border, after all, and the servants wouldn’t dare disturb her at this late hour.
Twilight sat back down at her desk of figurines and began to move the Trottingham army forward, grinning as the battle neared its climax. The Clankers had completed their bombardment, and it was time for the iron fighter planes to finish off the woefully outnumbered Canterlot militia.
It had taken all night to set up the attack, using an imperial tactics manual borrowed from Father’s study. It seemed only fair that Twilight have some fun while her parents were off watching Air Force maneuvers. She’d begged them to take her along, to see the mustered ranks of soldiers flying past in real life, to feel the rumble of massed fighting machines through her boots.
It was Mother, of course, who had forbidden it- her studies were more important than “parades” as she called them. She didn’t understand that military exercises had much more to teach her than the royal tutors and their books. One day soon, Twilight might be piloting one of those machines herself. War was coming, after all. Everypony said so.
The last tin infantry unit had just crashed into the allied lines when the soft sound came from the hallway again; jingling, like a ring of keys.
Twilight turned, peering at the gap beneath her bedroom’s double doors. Shadows shifted along the sliver of moonlight, and she heard the hiss of whispers. Somepony was right outside....
Silent in bare hooves, she swiftly crossed the cold marble floor, sliding into bed just as the door creaked open. Twilight narrowed her eyes to a slit, wondering which of the servants was checking up on her.
Moonlight spilled into the room, making the tin soldiers on her desk glitter. Somepony slipped inside, and she could hear the silent flapping of a pegasus’ wings. The figure paused, staring at Twilight for a moment, then crept toward her dresser. Twilight heard the wooden rasp of her drawer sliding open.
Her heart raced. The servants would know better than to steal from her! But what if the intruder were something worse than a thief? Her father’s warnings echoed in her ears...
You have had enemies from the day you were born.
She knew that she wasn’t popular among the royal court of Trottingham; years of torment and insults had reminded her every day of her spoiled blood. Oh why did Mother have to be a commoner?
A bell cord hung next to her bed, but her parents’ room was empty. With Father and his bodyguard away, the closest guards were quartered at the other end of the hall, 150 feet away. Twilight slid one hoof under her pillow, gripping her hunting knife tightly. She lay there holding her breath, repeating to herself her father’s other watchword.
Surprise is more valuable than strength.
Another figure came through the door then, boots clomping, a jacket’s metal clips clacking together. The figure jumped into the air, and onto her bed!
“Twilight! Wakey-wakey, sleepyhead!”
Twilight let go of the knife, releasing a sigh of relief. It was just Pinkie Pie, her mistress of mechanics. She was very excited, but sounded like she was whispering. The first figure began rifling through the dresser, pulling at clothes.
“She’s been awake the whole time, Pinkie,” Countess Rainbow Dash’s raspy voice said. “A bit of advice, Princess? When you pretend to be asleep, it’s best not to hold your breath.”
Twilight sat up and scowled. Her fencing mistress had an annoying knack for seeing through her deception. “What’s the meaning of this?” she asked.
“You’re to come with us, Princess,” Pinkie said with confidence. “Archduke’s orders!”
“Father? He’s back already?”
“No, he left us instructions,” Countess Rainbow Dash said with the same infuriating tone she used during fencing lessons. She tossed a pair of Twilight’s trousers and a piloting jacket onto the bed. Twilight stared at them, half outraged and half confused.
“Yeah, just like young Moztrot,” Pinkie said. “In the archduke’s stories!”
Twilight frowned, remembering Father’s favorite stories about the great composer. Apparently, Moztrot’s tutors would wake the poor foal up in the middle of the night and force music lessons upon him while his mind was raw and defenseless. It all sounded quite rude to Twilight.
She noticed that both Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash were in full Class-A uniform, complete with swords, pistols, and pickelhaube helmets.
She reached for the trousers. “You’re going to make me write a fugue?”
“Cute idea, Your Highness,” Count Rainbow Dash said. “But please hurry.”
“We have a trotter set up behind the barn, Princess!” Pinkie was bouncing in place as Twilight buttoned up her jacket. “And guess who gets to drive?”
“A trotter?” Twilight’s eyes widened. Piloting was one lesson that she’d get out of bed for at any hour. She slipped quickly into her trousers.
“Yup, your first night lesson!” Pinkie Pie said, handing Twilight her helmet. Twilight strapped it on and stood, her hoofsteps echoing on the marble floor.
“Quietly now.” Countess Rainbow Dash hovered by the chamber doors. She cracked them and peered out into the hall.
“We’re gonna SNEAK out, your highness! Like ninjas!” Pinkie did an impressive standing flip and landed in a ninjutsu pose. “This lesson’s gonna be so fun!”
The three of them crept down the hall, Pinkie Pie quietly bouncing behind them. Paintings of Twilight’s ancestors, the family who had ruled Trottingham for six hundred years, lined the hallway, staring down with unreadable expressions. The antlers of her father’s hunting trophies cast tangled shadows, like a beautiful moonlit forest full of dangerous predators. Every hoofstep was magnified by the dead silence of the dark castle, and questions echoed in Twilight’s mind.
Wasn’t it dangerous to pilot a trotter at night? And why was her fencing mistress coming along? Count Rainbow Dash preferred swords and her own two wings over slow, soulless mechanics, and had little tolerance for commoners like Pinkie Pie. Mistress Pinkie was raised in the slums, and had been hired for her tremendous piloting and engineering skills, not her family name. But Twilight didn’t care if Pinkie was a former consultant of the Dawnist court! She was the only one of Twilight’s instructors who treated her with any dignity, and one of the only pony’s that she could truly call a friend.
“Rainbow Dash...,” Twilight began.
“Quiet, girl!” the countess spat.
Anger flashed inside Twilight, and a curse almost burst from her muzzle, even if it did blow their cover. It was always like this. To the servants she might be “the young princess,” but nobles like Rainbow Dash never let Twilight Sparkle forget her position. Thanks to her mother’s common blood, she isn’t fit to inherit royal titles and lands. Her father may be heir to the souls of 50 million ponies, but Twilight Sparkle was heir to nothing.
Rainbow Dash herself was only a countess- no farmlands to her name, just her family estate in Cloudsdale- but even she could feel superior to the daughter of a lady-in-waiting.
Twilight managed to stay quiet, letting her anger cool as they snuck through the vast and empty banquet hall. Years of insults have taught her when to bite her tongue, and disrespect was easy to swallow with the prospect of piloting a trotter!
One day she would have her revenge on all those who have wronged her. Father had promised. The marriage contract would be changed somehow, and Twilight’s blood made royal. Even if it meant defying Emperor Blueblood himself.
By the time they reached the barn, Twilight’s only concern was tripping in the darkness. The moon was less than half full, and the estate’s hunting forests stretched like a black sea across the county. At this hour, all the lights of the city had dimmed to a mere inkling.
When Twilight saw the trotter, a soft *squee* escaped her lips.
It stood as tall as ten ponies, and it wasn’t even standing straight up! Its two metal feet sunk deep into the moist soil. In the dark, the tank-like machine looked like one of the Dawnist monsters skulking in the darkness.
This was no training machine, it was a real engine of death. A Cyklop Stormtrotter. A cannon was mounted in its chest, and the stubby noses of two machine guns sprouted from its head, which was as big as her bedroom!
Before tonight Twilight had piloted only unarmed run-abouts and four-legged training trotters. Even with her 18th birthday almost here, Mother had always insisted that she was too young for war machines. But Twilight was infatuated with them ever since she was a young filly. The mighty Clanker Entente of Trottingham, Cloudsdale, and the Buckbeak Empire didn’t discriminate based on gender, unlike the narrow-minded Dawnists. Besides, Twilight would much rather command a platoon against the fabricated monsters of Canterlot, Prance, Appaloosa, and Stalliongrad than deal with affairs of state.
“I get to pilot that?” Twilight heard her own voice crack.
Pinkie Pie patted her shoulder heavily. “Don’t you worry, young Moztrot! I’ll be right there with you!”
Countess Rainbow Dash called up to the machine, and its engines rumbled to life, the ground shaking beneath Twilight’s hooves. Dew shivered from the wet leaves in the camouflaged nets draped over the Stormtrotter, and the mutter of nervous sheep could be heard from the barn.
The belly hatch opened and a chain ladder tumbled out, unrolling as it fell. Countess Rainbow Dash stopped the ladder from swinging and looked back at Twilight.
“Any time you’re ready, young mistress.”
Twilight stared up at the machine. She tried to imagine piloting this monster through the dark forest, crushing trees and anything else that was unlucky enough to be in her way. She had butterflies in her stomach.
Pinkie Pie hopped up to the ladder. “Your father the archduke has given us a challenge! He told me that he wanted you ready to pilot any machine in the House Guard, and I told him ‘Bring it on, Dukie!’ Well, of course I didn’t call him ‘Dukie!’ He’d probably have my head cut off!” Pinkie Pie twisted her head to an impossible angle with a huge smile while Countess Rainbow Dash put her hoof to her face.
Twilight swallowed. Father always said that, with war on the horizon, everypony in the household had to be ready. And it made sense to begin training while mother was away. If Twilight crashed, the worst bruises might fade before the princess Star Sparkle returned.
But Twilight still hesitated. The belly hatch of the shaking Stormtrotter looked like the maw of an enormous predator ready to take a bite of her.
“Of course, we can’t force you, Your Serene Highness,” Countess Rainbow Dash said, clearly mocking her. “We can always explain to the archduke that you were too chicken!”
“I’m not a chicken!” Twilight said along with an unknown voice. They all looked up into the hatch to see a small orange pegasus with a dark steel helmet, blushing at her mistake.
“Oh, sorry Countess!” she said.
“Corporal, get back in the trotter!” Countess Rainbow Dash said. She didn’t sound annoyed, like she always sounded with Twilight, but more playful and understanding. Twilight wished that Rainbow Dash would show her half the patience that she shows her soldiers. The young pegasus, who Twilight recognized as Scootaloo, gave a swift salute before vanishing back into the war machine.
Twilight grabbed the ladder and climbed up. She crawled into the machine’s dark mouth, the smell of kerosene and sweat filling her nose, the engine’s rhythm trembling in her bones.
“Welcome aboard, Your Highness,” a male voice said. She looked behind her shoulder and saw Scootaloo and Spike in the gunner’s cabins, both in full Trottingham Naval uniforms. A Stormtrotter carried a crew of five, if Twilight recalled correctly. Twilight was glad to see that her fillyhood companion Spike had risen in rank so swiftly. She returned their salutes as she continued to climb into the command cabin. She sat down in the pilot’s seat, strapping in as Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash followed.
She placed her hooves on the saunters, feeling the machine’s awesome power trembling through her forelegs.
“Vision at full!” Pinkie said, cranking the viewport open as wide as it would go. The cool night breeze flooded the cabin, and the moonlight highlighted dozens of levers and switches. Twilight scanned all of the dozens of fluctuating needles before her, wondering what they all could possibly be for.
She looked away from the controls and gazed out the viewport into the forest. The distance to the ground made her legs weak, as if she was about to jump off of a high dive into an empty pool.
“All right, let’s get this over with,” Countess Rainbow Dash said, already sounding bored as she put one hoof to her chin. Twilight looked ahead, resolving not to provide the Countess with any more amusement. She eased the saunters forward, and the enormous engines roared as the Stormtrotter went into motion.
The machine rose from its crouch, pulling them even farther off of the ground. Twilight could see across the treetops now, catching a glimpse of Cloudsdale in the distance. She pulled the left saunter back and pushed the right forward. The machine moved forward with an amazing step, pushing the five of them back in their seats.
Twilight twisted at the saunters, moving the weight from one foot to the other. The cabin swayed like a tree house in a storm as a chorus of hissing came from the engines. The gauges on the control panel danced as the Stormtrotter’s joints strained against the machine’s weight.
“Good.... excellent, Twilight,” Pinkie said under her breath from the commander’s seat. “But watch the knee pressure!”
Knee pressure? There must have been a hundred gauges! How could anypony keep track of all those needles without crashing into a wall?
“Yeah, that’s it!” Pinkie said a few steps later. Twilight nodded, overjoyed that she hadn’t yet crashed or tipped over. They entered the thick of the forest, bending branches and leaving enormous tracks in the ground.
“Shouldn’t we spark up the running lights?” Twilight asked, not taking her eyes away from the viewport.
Pinkie shook her head. “No way! Remember, silly? We’re sneaking out!”
“Terrible way to travel,” Rainbow Dash muttered. Twilight began to wonder why the countess was here in the first place. Was there going to be a fencing lesson after this? What sort of warrior-Moztrot was Father trying to make her into?
The gears shrieked as the left pedal snapped up against Twilight’s hoof. The machine began to tip forward. “You’re caught, Princess!” Pinkie said, ready to snatch the controls away.
“I know!” Twilight cried, twisting at the controls. She slammed the machine’s right foot down mid-stride as the Stormtrotter wavered for a moment. But seconds later, Twilight felt the machine’s weight settle into the moss and dirt below. It was balanced with one foot stretching back, like a fencer posing after a lunge.
She pulled at the saunters, the right leg straining forward while the left pulled at whatever had it entangled. The engines roared as steam released from the joints. Finally, Twilight regained control of the left leg as the sound of roots ripping from the ground were heard. Twilight’s shaking hooves guided the trotter through its next few slow steps.
“Well done, Princess!” Pinkie cried from behind her, clapping her hooves in excitement and pride.
“Thanks, Pinkie,” Twilight said in a dry voice, feeling the sweat run down her face and build up beneath her jacket. She clenched the saunters tight, and the machine began to speed up into a slow trot. Gradually, she forgot that she was driving a machine, as its steps felt like her own. Twilight had even begun to see patterns in the needles’ fluctuation. A few rose with every footfall, easing back as the trotter straightened. “Oh, knee pressure!” Twilight thought to herself.
Finally the trees thinned as they left the forest. “Turn right here,” Pinkie Pie instructed. “We’ll have much better footing.”
“Wait, but isn’t this one of Mother’s exercise paths?” Twilight asked. “She’ll have my flank if we track it up!” Whenever Princess Star Sparkle or one of her friends stumbled on a trotter footprint, Mistress Pinkie Pie, Twilight, and even Father felt her wrath for days.
“Not the best course of action, Princess,” Countess Rainbow Dash said. “But necessary if we’re gonna make good time.”
Twilight stopped the trotter and looked back at Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash. “Make good time? But this is just practice. It’s not like we’re going anywhere, right?” Pinkie was silent, the smile evaporating from her face.
Twilight spun around in her chair. “Rainbow Dash, what’s going on?”
The cyan pegasus looked down at her in silence, and Twilight suddenly felt very alone out here in the forest. Her mind began to replay her father’s warnings: How some nobles believed that Twilight’s impure blood threatened the empire. That one day the insults may turn into something worse....
But these mares just couldn’t be traitors! Rainbow Dash had held a sword to her throat a thousand times in fencing practice. And her mistress of mechanics? Inconceivable!
“Pinkie, where are we going. Explain this right now!”
“You’re to come with us, princess,” Pinkie Pie said with shame in her voice.
“We have to get as far away from the castle as possible,” Rainbow Dash said. “Archduke’s orders.”
“But Father isn’t even....” Twilight’s heart stopped at the realization and swore to herself. What a mule she’d been, tempted into the forest with promises of piloting, like luring a foal with candy. The whole household was asleep, and her parents were miles away at the Appaloosan border.
She reached for her knife- dammit! She’d left it back in her room, under the pillow!
Countess Rainbow Dash started “The archduke left instruc-”
“LIAR!” Twilight shouted.
“I really wish I was, princess.” Rainbow Dash reached into her jacket and pulled out a flask.
A surge of panic swept into Twilight Sparkle as she lunged for the distress whistle’s cord. Surely somepony would hear the Stormtrotter’s shriek. Pinkie jumped into motion, holding back Twilight in her chair. Rainbow Dash smothered a hoofkerchief with the contents of the flask and held it to Twilight’s muzzle. A sweet smell filled the cabin, sending her mind into a spiral. She tried to hold her breath, struggling against the two stronger ponies.
After what felt like minutes, Twilight Sparkle’s lungs rebelled. She scooped in a ragged breath, the sharp scent of chemicals filling her head. A cascade of stars fell across the controls, and weight felt like it was lifting off of Twilight’s exhausted back. She felt as if she was floating free of her captor’s grasps, free of the trotter, free of gravity.
“I’m.... really sorry, princess,” Pinkie said with pain in her voice.
“My father.... will have your h-heads” Twilight managed to blurt.
“I’m afraid not, Your Highness,” Count Rainbow Dash said. “Archduke Nightlight and Princess Star Sparkle are dead, murdered this night at the Appaloosan border.”
Twilight tried to laugh at this absurd statement, but she could not as she quietly crashed to the ground of the Stormtrotter’s cabin, darkness and silence enveloping her.
My Little Airship: Part 2
“Wake up ya lil’ buzzard!”
Applejack opened one eye and found herself staring at sketched lines streaming past an airbeast’s body, like a river’s course around an island- an airflow diagram. Lifting her head from the aeronautics manual, she found that the open page was sticking to her cheek.
“Ya stayed up all night again!” The voice of her brother, Big Macintosh, strained her ears again. “Ah told ya to get some sleep for the test!”
Applejack peeled the paper off of her face and frowned- a smudge of her drool had disfigured her diagram. She wondered if sleeping with her head in the manual would help her remember the aeronautics. “Well, clearly I did get some sleep, seein’ as you found me snorin’!”
“Eeyup, but not properly in bed. Yer back’s gonna be killin’ ya if they make ya fly today.” He was moving around the small rented room in the 5am darkness, piecing together a clean airpony’s uniform. “Just another hour a’ studyin’, ya said, and ya burned our last dang candle down to a squick!”
Applejack rubbed her eyes, looking around the small, depressing room. It was always cold and smelled of sheep clart from below. Hopefully this would be the last night she’d stay in this room, in bed or otherwise. “Don’t matter. The Service has its own candles”
“If ya pass the test.”
Applejack snorted. She’d only studied so hard because she couldn’t fall asleep; she was way too excited about finally taking the airpony middy’s test. “Don’t you worry ‘bout that, Big Mac. I’ll pass.”
Her older brother nodded, a mischievous smile crossing his face. “Well, maybe yer a crack hoof with aerology an’ sextants, an’ maybe you can pilot any airbeast in the fleet. But there’s one test I ain’t mentioned. It ain’t about book learnin’- it’s called air sense.”
“Air sense?” Applejack asked. “You pullin’ my tail?”
“It’s a dark secret of the service.” Big Macintosh leaned forward over the desk, his voice dropping to an ominous whisper. “Ah jut risked ma rank for darin’ to mention it to a civilian!”
“Yer full a’ crap, Bic Macintosh!”
“Ah can say no more.” He pulled his still-buttoned white shirt over his head, and when his face emerged, it had broken into a huge smile. Macintosh tied his airpony’s neckerchief. “Get yer jacket on an’ we’ll see what ya look like. We’ll go out for an early breakfast. Try not ta lose it durin’ the test.”
Applejack stared down at the pile of borrowed clothes. After all her studying and everything she’d learned when her father was still alive, the middy’s test would be a piece of cake. But that wasn’t the hard part. She was one of the only mares that the Canterlot Royal Air Service was admitting this year, and that was only because Big Macintosh and her cousin Braeburn had been such young prodigies. She would be under the microscope of her commanding officers the whole time.
She’d re-sewn Big Macintosh’s older uniform to alter their shape, and she was certainly as strong as most colts taking the middy’s test. But strength and smarts weren’t everything. A month in the streets of Canterlot had convinced her of that. Soldiers had something special.... a certain mystique about them.
When she was dressed, Applejack gazed at her reflection in the darkened mirror. Her usual self stared back at her- female and seventeen. The careful tailoring made her look awfully skinny, not so much a soldier as a stuffed doll in old clothes to scare the crows.
“Well, do ah pass as a pilot?” Big Macintosh looked her up and down in silence. She was in a white button-up, brown slacks, brown boots, and a brown piloting jacket, with her hair tied in a bun. “I’m plenty tall for seventeen, right?” she pleaded.
“Eeyup, ah suppose you’ll fill the uniform out okay. Just too bad they’re gonna get ya so damn fat!”
Applejack scowled. “And yer a dirty no-good buzzard covered in cow crap!”
Big Macintosh laughed, slapping her hard on the back. “Heh heh, I’ll have ya swearin’ like a middy in no time!”
The Canterlot fabricated buses were much fancier than those back in Ponyville. Much faster, too. The one that took them to the airfield appeared to be a cross between a hippopotamus and a buffalo.... or perhaps a mammoth. The huge, powerful beast had them nearing the barracks just as dawn broke.
Applejack stared out the window, watching the movement of the treetops and the garbage blowing in the wind. The sky was painted a glorious (yet ominous) red and yellow, with many gray and black clouds accenting its intimidating beauty. Was there to be a rainstorm today? Not that it mattered; the tests would be indoors. It was book learning that the Air Service demanded of its younger middies: navigation and aerodynamics, and Applejack had that in spades.
Since getting on the bus with Big Macintosh, Applejack’s coat had itched with wondering what she looked like to strangers. Did they really think she was a young recruit on her way to the Air Proving Grounds? Or did she look like some filly with her head screwed on wrong, playing dress-up in her brother’s old uniform?
The ominous next-to-last stop was at Canterlot’s infamous county prison. Most of the passengers got off here, mares covered in make-up and perfume carrying lunch pails and gifts for their husbands and coltfriends inside. The sight of the barred windows and razor wire fences made Applejack’s stomach churn.
Thoughts ran through her head about not being allowed aboard and airship, and she turned pale. It just wasn’t fair, her being born a mare! She knew more about aeronautics than Pa ever taught Big Macintosh. Plus, she had a much better head for heights than her brother. The worst part was, if the boffins didn’t let her into the service, she’d be spending tonight in that awful motel room again, and headed back to Ponyville by tomorrow!
Her mother, along with Granny Smith and her sister Applebloom, were waiting for her there, certain that her mad scheme wouldn’t work and ready to stuff Applejack back into skirts and corsets. No studying, no flying, no swearing! And the last of her inheritance wasted on this trip to Canterlot.
She glared at the three colts riding in the front of the bus, messing around and laughing nervously as the proving ground drew closer. The tallest of them was only slightly taller than Applejack, and couldn’t be so much stronger. She wouldn’t even think to credit them as being as smart or as brave. So why should they be allowed into the king’s service and not her?
The line of recruits on the ascension field weren’t impressive. Most looked barely sixteen, sent off by their families to find advancement in life. A few older colts were mixed in with the others, probably middies coming over from the navy. For the Air Service, there were very few pegasi, Applejack noted, seeing as how most of them came from Cloudsdale and didn’t like the prospect of fighting their brothers.
Looking at their anxious faces, Applejack was glad to have a father who’d taken her up in hot-air balloons. She’d met military officers before, but that didn’t stop the fountain of sweat from bursting from her forehead. She almost reached for Big Macintosh’s hoof before realizing how that would look.
“All right, AJ,” he said quietly as they neared the desk. “Just remember what ah told ya, an don’t draw too much attention to yerself.” He said nothing more, following Applejack to the long table set up beneath a large white tent on the side of the runway. Three officers sat behind it, accepting letters of introduction from the recruits.
“Ah, Coxswain Macintosh!” one said. He wore the dark blue uniform of a flight lieutenant, but also the black bowler hat of a boffin, and quite the impressive moustache.
Big Macintosh saluted him smartly. “Lieutenant Silverstar, may I present mah sister Applejack.” When Silverstar held out his hoof to Applejack, she felt the moment of Dawnist pride that boffins always inspired in her. Here was a colt who reached into the very threads of life and twisted them to suit his will.
She gave his hoof the firmest shake she could. “Nice ta meet ya, sir.”
“Always a pleasure to meet one a’ the Apples,” he replied. “Yer brother speaks highly of yer comprehension of aeronautics and aerology.”
Applejack cleared her throat, using the soft, low voice she’d been practicing. “My Pa taught me all about balloonin’.”
“Ah yes, a brave colt, he was.” The lieutenant shook his head. “A damn shame he ain’t here to see the triumphs a’ livin’ flight.”
“Aye, he woulda loved it, sir.” Pa had only gone up in balloons, not hydrogen breathers like the service used. Macintosh gave her a nudge, and Applejack remembered her letter of recommendation. She pulled it from her jacket and offered it to Flight Lieutenant Silverestar. He pretended to read it, which was funny because he was the one who wrote it as a favor to Macintosh. But even a Lieutenant boffin had to follow procedure down to the last detail.
“Well, aside from a few gr’matical errors, seems to be in order.” Big Macintosh and Applejack grinned at his joke as Lieutenant Silverstar looked over Applejack’s uniform. “Bit skinny, ain’t ya?”
“Yes sir, I s’pose so,” Applejack said, rubbing the back of her neck.
Silverstar smiled. “Well, we’ll just hafta plump ya up a bit, like we did with yer brother.” Silverstar nudged the taller Big Macintosh in the ribs. “Miss Applejack, fall in!”
The rising sun was in full view when the middy’s commanding officers arrived. They rolled across the field in a tank-like steel carriage drawn by two enormous beasts. They looked like an albino cross between tigers and hyenas, and they were but a few feet away from the already-terrified recruits. Their eyes were a demonic yellow with black pupils, and their muscles were bulging beneath the carriages leather straps. Applejack saw the other boys in the line stiffen up in her peripheral vision. When one of the beasts let out a loud snort, a nervous whimper was heard coming down the line.
A tall, statuesque brown earth pony in a blue suit stood up in the carriage, a riding crop tucked under his left foreleg. “Gentlecolts, welcome to the Wormware scrubs. I trust that none of you are frightened by these miracles of modern magic?”
Nopony answered. Fabricated beasts were everywhere in Canterlot, of course, but nothing like these half-ton predators, so strong and intelligent. Applejack stared completely straight, though she desperately wanted to take a closer look at the tigeresques before her. She’d only seen them before in her textbooks.
“Oh Luna,” the young colt next to her whimpered. He was almost as tall as Applejack, but his brown hair stuck straight up in the air out of fear. “I’d hate to see those two get free a’ their straps.”
Applejack wanted to explain that these Tigeresques are completely tame, and would never go on a killing spree like many would imagine, but she remained silent. Fabricated mammals were incredibly easy to train. Airbeasts.... now that’s different.
When nopony would admit their fear, the officer spoke up. “Well, since I’ve apparently been blessed with the bravest squad in all of Equestria, I suppose you won’t mind a closer look!”
The driver’s whip snapped loudly, and the carriage rolled across the field, the nearest tigeresque passing within hooves reach of the volunteers. Several of the young colts just couldn’t stand it. They broke from the line and galloped away to the gates, shrieking the whole way.
Applejack kept her eyes forward, reaching out one hoof to stroke the passing beastie. The smell of wet fur and raw meat sent shivers down her spine.
“Hm, only a few of ya? Not half bad!” Applejack felt a bit smug, knowing in the back of her mind that the other recruits expected the one girl in the line to wet herself. It ain’t about bravery, it’s about knowin’ better! Applejack thought. Some ponies were afraid of Dawnist beasties by instinct, no matter how big or small. While it was true that the magic used to create them was Chaotic, what did it matter? Even though fabricated animals had been widely accepted in Canterlot for decades, many ponies still believed that crossbreeding living creatures was a crime against nature.
“But this is the Air Service,” the flight captain said. “And we need to see if you can keep your head when you’re a mile above the ground. Coxswain?”
“About-face!” shouted the second pony on the carriage. The line of volunteers quickly turned around to face the hangar tent. Applejack could see Big Macintosh off to the side with Silverstar and the other boffins, and they all had devious smiles on their faces. Two middy’s pulled the tent flaps open, and the recruits couldn’t believe what they saw.
It appeared to be an enormous, muscular jellyfish floating in the air, bound by several strands of rope. It was a mix of dark blues and purples, and it had what appeared to be a hundred struggling tentacles. Beneath its translucent body was a leather saddle....
“Gentlecolts, this is a Buxley ascender, the first hoof-made hydrogen breather. She’s made from strands of the medusa jellyfish, along with plenty of other sea creatures and serpents. And you’ll all be taking her up in the air today!”
As glorious and useful as they were, Buxleys were hardly safe to fly in. One wrong gust of wind or a puff of smoke could send the entire beast diving to the ground like a kamikaze pilot.
“Don’t worry, it won’t be much of a ride. Just about a thousand feet and we’ll reel ya back in after a few minutes. Raise your hoof if you’ve seen the royal palace.” Most of the recruits raised their hoof. “Well, not like this! If you’re not up to it, the shuttle stops right over there. Have a nice day.”
The line went silent as about fourteen or fifteen colts exited the line, walking over to the gate in shame. Many of them had turned as pale as the tigeresques when the captain said that they’d be flying in one of those things. Applejack realized with pride that over half the recruits had already chickened out!
“All right then!” the captain said. “Now that we’ve swept away the peons, who’d like to go first?”
Applejack had nothing to lose, and despite Big Macintosh telling her not to draw attention to herself, she took a step toward the carriage. She had to establish herself as the alpha mare...
“I’ll go up first, sir!”
The saddle held her snugly as she rocked back and forth beneath the medusa. Applejack played with the tassels as the coxswain strapped her in. There was no strap to go between her back legs, so she was practically dangling from the seat.
“You’ll be just fine, lass,” the coxswain said as he buckled the last safety belt. “Get a good look a’ Canterlot and wait for us to pull ya down. And of course, try not to agitate the Buxley.” The coxswain pulled a yellow flag from his pocket. “If ya can’t take it, or if somethin’ goes wrong, just throw this an’ we’ll pull ya back in.”
“Thank ya, sir. But ah won’t panic.”
“Heh, if I had a nickel for every time....” The coxswain grabbed the release cord to the Buxley’s water bags and put it in Applejack’s hoof. “But Buxley’s can be mighty unpredictable. If he goes into a dive, just pull this.”
“Aye, makes her lighter so she falls slower,” Applejack said with a smile.
“Clever lass,” the coxswain said. “But smarts ain’t no substitute for air sense.”
“Um, air sense, sir?” So Big Macintosh wasn’t fooling around....
“Just means don’t do nothin’ foolish, lass!” The coxswain backed up with a smile and pulled out a small silver whistle. He blew a short pattern, and the ground ponies holding down the Buxley let go of their ropes. The saddle scooped Applejack up into the air as her stomach sank into her thighs. She could hear Big Macintosh cheering for her as the volunteers stared up in awe. Applejack hadn’t flown since Pa’s accident, but the air rushing through her mane as she ascended the first few hundred feet felt glorious! She wanted to shout down to the other volunteers:
“Hahaha! Check it out, ya dirty tramps! I’m flyin’! A natural talent, if ah do say so mahself! That’s right, i’m a MARE, and y’all can suck mah proverbial dong!”
The colts at the line winch were letting the cable out quickly, and all the ponies on the ground were nothing but colorful dots. She stopped to appreciate the shapes and patterns of the great buildings and fields of Canterlot: a white baseball diamond, the serpent-like patterns of the highway, the gates surrounding the prison....
Applejack looked up at her jellyfish, its translucent body full of veins and arteries illuminated with the rising sun in the distance. Its many tentacles swayed beside her, devouring insects and stretching its muscles.
Hydrogen breathers eat insects, pollen, and other substances, then break them down in its stomach into natural gases- oxygen, carbon, and of course, the hydrogen that allows them to float through the air like balloons.
The outline of King Colton Vine III’s Royal Palace came into view, followed by Gopher Park and the royal hedge maze. Then, just as the spire of Lady Sparkler’s Moon Tribe Cathedral came into view, the Buxley began to shiver.
Applejack looked up. “They reelin’ me in already?” she thought. But when she looked down at the safety cord, it hung slack. The beastie began to shake again as its tentacles coiled up. “You gettin’ nervous, beastie?” Applejack asked. She began to look around for anything that might be bothering the Buxley.
Then she saw it. A huge collection of rolling black clouds slowly approaching, showering Canterlot beneath it. Applejack realized that the airponies below her couldn’t see the approaching storm; the runway was illuminated by the blinding sun.
“Aw, Luna dammit!” Applejack looked to the yellow flag tucked in her front pocket and swore. If this were a real scouting mission, she’d have a flare gun or a message lizard to scamper down the line for her. But all she had was a panic symbol. “I ain’t panicking!”
She gazed at the rolling black storm, wondering why the weather ponies had decided to schedule the damn thing on the day of the Middy’s test. What if the rain sent the Buxley into a dive? Maybe she really didn’t have any air sense....
Applejack took a deep breath, and the Buxley let out a soft groan. Lightning began to flash from the clouds. She stared at her yellow flag. If the ground ponies saw it fall, they’d think she was panicking. She could just explain that there was a storm rolling in that they couldn’t see.... Maybe they’d praise her for tremendous air sense!
But what if the storm changed course, or rained itself out before it reached the scrubs? “Come on! How long are y’all gonna keep me up here?” She looked at the flag, and back at the storm. She clenched her teeth tightly. “Aww..... What would Pa do?”
My Little Airship: Part 3
Princess Twilight Sparkle awoke to the sound of rumbling of engines and the taste of terribly sweet molasses. It felt as if she were moving.... She couldn’t come up with a cohesive thought as her senses gradually returned to normal. She opened her eyes and saw that she was wrapped in a white blanket with her family crest embroidered on the middle; the Great Princess Celestia flying straight into the sky with the rising sun behind her. It was her family, after all, that the Princess entrusted her half of Equestria to on her death bed. So of course, when Twilight’s father fell in love with a lowly commoner, her family saw it as him inviting trash into the home of Celestia.
Then it all came back to her: being pulled out of bed, piloting the trotter, and being assaulted by her own two tutors.... She realized that she was still in the Stormtrotter, and that she could be a hundred miles from home by now. She’d been fillynapped.
At least she was still breathing. Were they planning to hold her hostage? Perhaps it was just for ransom; trying to make a quick fortune off her parents before the war begins.... Her fillynappers clearly didn’t think that Twilight was much of a threat, seeing as how all they constricted her with was a warm blanket.
Still feeling hazy, Twilight lifted her head to check her surroundings. There was but one lantern in the small, shifting room full of spare trotter parts. A rack of concussive shells and incendiary missiles lined the wall, and the hiss of steam was quite loud. She must have been in the gunners’ station!
“P-princess?” came a quiet male voice.
Twilight jumped to her hooves and turned to face the voice. “Spike!” It was so refreshing to see a friendly face, even if he was technically one of her captors. The small dragon stood at attention until Twilight levitated him up into a hug. “Oh my goodness, Spike! What’s happening? I’m scared! Where are we?”
The dragon struggled to breath in Twilight’s tight embrace. “Well, I.... I’m not really sure, princess....”
Twilight frowned. Spike would never lie to me. She released him from her grasp. “Well, can you at least tell me our destination?”
“Uh.... I’ll go get Countess Rainbow Dash-”
“NO!” Twilight snapped. Spike turned pale. “Spike, I have no idea what’s going on, but you are to let me out! I can’t teleport us both out of here, but we can slip out the back hatch together. You can escort me back to the castle! What do you say? You can be a hero, and I’ll make sure my father doesn’t have you burned alive!” Twilight put on a huge, nervous smile, hoping that her friend would help her.
Spike frowned. “Your father? Oh....” Twilight looked confused. “I’m.... I’m really sorry, princess.” Spike could not meet Twilight’s gaze, instead pointing them to the ground in shame. Then Twilight remembered what Rainbow Dash said before she blacked out- something about her parents.
“No,” Twilight said again, this time as quiet and insecure as mouse. She had a feeling that the walls were closing around her. Twilight fought back tears as her voice cracked, sounding more like a broken down little filly than a princess. “Please let me go, Spike.” But Spike could only turn away, embarrassed, opening up the hatchway to the command cabin.
“The archduke laid out a plan for us before he left,” Countess Rainbow Dash said. “You know, in case this ended up happening.”
Twilight was dead silent, staring out the Stormtrotter’s viewport from the commander’s chair, still wrapped in the white blanket, watching the trees pass by in the blood red morning sky. To her left, Pinkie Pie drove the machine forward with smooth, flawless shifts of the saunters. Twilight had never seen Pinkie so calm, so focused, so in her element.
“The archduke was SO smart!” Mistress Pinkie said. “He knew that it might be dangerous going so close to Appaloosa with all those creepy crazy rebels, so he made a plan for us to take care of you!”
“There was no way those chaotic freaks would keep Nightlight from doing his job,” Rainbow Dash said, showing no inflection in her voice.
Twilight spoke up. “His job?” Twilight spat, the taste of chemicals still polluting her mouth. “But father would NEVER take mother into danger. He knows better!”
Rainbow Dash frowned. “Nightlight took every opportunity he could to spend time with Princess Star Sparkle. They really loved each other, kiddo.”
Twilight shut her eyes tight. Father was always saddened when Mother wasn’t allowed to attend official receptions or deal with royal affairs with him. A reminder that he fell in love with a woman who was beneath his family’s standards.
Twilight refused to believe the ridiculous ruse that her parents were dead. “You really think I’ll fall for that subterfuge? You’re just trying to shut my muzzle!”
Nopony replied. Despite the growl of the engines and the branches snapping against the trotter’s steel shell, the awkward silence was all-consuming. Rainbow Dash, who was still in full uniform, appeared to be in deep thought. The leather straps hanging from the ceiling above swung in unison with the Trotter’s mighty steps.
“The Appaloosans wouldn’t come within a mile of my parents,” Twilight murmured.
“Hey, might not BE the Appaloosans, Twilight,” Rainbow Dash said, her usual tone returning. “Anypony who wants war among the Dawnists and Clankers had motivation. There’s been tension ever since Princess Luna passed away three hundred years ago! But there’s no time for conspiracy cracking now. We gotta get you someplace safe.”
Twilight gulped. Countess Rainbow Dash hardly ever addressed Twilight by name! Was she not the princess anymore?
“They tried to get to your parents a few times before they succeeded,” Rainbow Dash continued. “Little Appaloosan foals, barely outta middle school.”
Pinkie Pie picked up on Rainbow Dash’s explanation without taking her eyes off the road. “They tried guns, bombs, birds, bats, cats, giant green rats! Didn’t work, though! No way! They decided to throw a super cool party to celebrate, uh, surviving, I guess! But...” Pinkie Pie frowned as her voice lost her excitement. “There were some undercover secret party poopers there and they.... they poisoned your parents’ drinks.”
Twilight hung her head. She knew that Pinkie wasn’t lying. She began to picture her parents’ bodies, totally still beside each other. She could feel a hole growing in her chest. But it didn’t add up! Wouldn’t they want to come for Twilight first, instead of her pureblooded father?
“So, why are you two helping me, then? I’m a nopony now! If you cared about my father’s wishes, you’d stop wasting your time and go after his assailants!”
“Nopony?” Rainbow Dash giggled. “Please! Blueblood’s old as dirt! He could fall over in his throne any day, and we’re starting a war! Who else is gonna take the throne?”
Twilight was speechless. They were rescuing her?.... To take the THRONE? “But I-I’m not fit to become empress! Great uncle Blueblood hated my mother! Almost as much as he hates Lord Caramel of Canterlot! He’d sooner cast a combustion spell on the castle than leave it to me!” Twilight began to choke up. “P-please, just take me home!”
“No way!” Pinkie said. “It’s not safe there anymore! We promised your father-”
“My father isn’t here!” Twilight interrupted. “What point do your little pacts serve when-”
“SHUT UP!” Rainbow Dash shouted.
Twilight turned around to face the Countess, and fear shot through her young body spine down to her hooves. She was about to say object when Rainbow Dash hopped out of her chair. “Stop the engines! Power down!”
Pinkie Pie brought the trotter to an abrupt halt, the engines and the hiss of steam pressure coming to a whisper. Twilight felt a strange relief at the sudden silence, her hooves no longer shaking. The air outside the walker was equally as calm. The quiet songs of birds filled the cabin as Rainbow Dash shut her eyes.
“You hear that?” she asked Twilight and Pinkie. They exchanged confused looks, and then.... Twilight felt something. The trotter was totally still, but the ground beneath it shuddered. There was another Clanker near. A big one.
Rainbow Dash flew up to the ceiling of the commanders cabin and unscrewed the top hatch. A short rope ladder unfurled from the hole as daylight spilled into the cabin. Another shudder passed through the earth, this time a bit stronger. Dew was shaken from the trees as the branches vibrated.
“Princess,” Rainbow Dash said to Twilight. “Come on! You really need to see this!”
Twilight stood and followed Rainbow Dash up the hatch to the top of the trotter. She levitated a pair of binoculars out of a drawer as she hoisted herself up. The orange sky strained her eyes and the cold morning breeze shot her full of adrenaline as she looked over the treetops; the trotter stood slightly taller than the surrounding trees of the young forest, and she could see what seemed to be the entirety of the glorious landscape of Trottingham.
Rainbow Dash pointed the way that they had come. “We’re not your enemies, princess! THEY are!”
Twilight raised her gold binoculars to her face. In the distance, she could see an enormous, steel, six-legged terror heading in their direction. It was only a few miles behind them, and was twice as tall as the Cyklop. The monster’s silver metal legs navigated calmly through the trees, but pegasi could be seen soaring all above it. The ship’s decks and hulls were shaped like huge spheres stacked on top of each other, like a bushel of grapes. Along the right flank stretched the name of the approaching ship: S.M.S. Blastoderm.
Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash watched as the massive legs pierced the ground, with the obligatory rumble of the earth following seconds later. The black, white, and blue flag of the Songbird’s land army flew from the ship’s deck.
“That dreadnought’s from Cloudsdale!” Twilight said, clearly terrified. Everypony knew that the Cloudsdalians preferred combat in the sky. But when they hit the ground, they hit hard. “What are the Cloudsdalians doing here in Trottingham?”
“Looking for us, probably,” Rainbow Dash said, totally unworried. “Trying to finish what they started with your parents. Or, do you still think we’re abducting you?”
Yeah, kinda, Twilight thought. What if they’re trying to save me? She could not dismiss the possibility that her parents were still alive, and that they alerted the nearby Blastoderm to keep an eye out for their missing daughter! What other excuse would the ship have for plowing through Trottinghammish land?
“HEY!” Twilight shouted “BLASTODERM! I’M RIGHT HERE!” She blasted two magical flares from her horn into the sky. Rainbow Dash once again slapped her forehead.
“Save your stamina, princess. They see us....” At that word, a loud *CRAKKK* was heard from the direction of the dreadnought, bright flashes erupting from its eight mighty starboard cannons. Seconds later, a deafening thunder clapped all around the Cyklop as trees and dirt shot up into the air beside them.
Rainbow Dash grabbed Twilight Sparkle by her collar and pulled her back into the trotter just as Pinkie started up the engines again. “SCOOTALOO, load the cannoOOEEEEEEEEEEH***!” Pinkie shouted into the mic, followed by an even louder shriek of feedback. “Oh,oopsSEEEEEEEH***. Um, I’ll stoOOOOOOOEEEEEEEH***.”
Rainbow Dash snatched Pinkie Pie’s mic away as she began to move the machine forward. Twilight sat back down into the commander’s chair as she recovered from the tremendous assault of audio. “So, hehe, you’re not fillynappers! Um, my mistake!” Twilight smiled widely to hide her fear; not just of the approaching Cloudsdalian death engine, but at the prospect of the entire Clanker entente hunting her.
“Look on the bright side, princess!” Rainbow Dash told Twilight Sparkle. “They wouldn’t send a beast like that to take down a NOPONY!”
Another set of cannon shells fell to the ground, this time a bit closer to the trotter. A large amount of dirt blasted through the viewport just as Pinkie and Rainbow Dash strapped their piloting goggles on. Twilight Sparkle was a bit late, spitting a ridiculous amount of dirt from her mouth and wiping off her tongue with both hooves.
“Princess, half vision!” Pinkie shouted. Both Spike and Scootaloo were down in the gunner’s cabin. “Uh, I mean, PRETTY PLEASE HALF VISION?”
“Of course, Pinkie!” Twilight said, securing her goggles and approaching the left side of the viewport. The trotter began to pick up speed, and quickly transitioned from clumsy steps into a graceful trot. Twilight tried to turn the viewport’s crank, but it was solid. She tried telekinesis, she tried heating the gears up, she tried biting the crank, she tried reasoning with it. Finally, the gears began to turn under Twilight’s magical grasp, and the viewport smoothly and COMPLETELY SHUT.
“WAAAH!” Pinkie Pie shouted. “I’M BLIND!” The trotter began to stumble and twist to the side.
In a panic, Twilight turned the gear in the other direction, opening it back up halfway. “SORRY- sorry.” Pinkie Pie regained her composure as she tore through the forest at impressive speeds.
“We’re still in their view!” Rainbow Dash shouted from atop the trotter. “We gotta get below the trees!”
Pinkie twisted at the saunters, bringing the stormtrotter into a crouch-run. The trees appeared to grow before them as the ground zoomed in. Twilight found herself entranced with Pinkie’s hoofwork; she’d never seen any machine run like this. She had assumed that it was beyond the capability of steel.
Then again, she’d also never seen a Cyklop Stormtrotter running away from a foe. But there aren’t many alternatives against a dreadnought, are there? That ship made the walker look like its kerosene-guzzling baby!
“We gotta lose the antenna!” Rainbow Dash shouted. “It’s sticking out!”
“I got it!” Twilight said. The antenna added another good eight feet to the trotters height, the flamboyant purple-and-black flag of Archduke Nightlight flapping in the wind. But Twilight had absolutely no idea how to lower it. She scanned the cabin for a winch, wishing she’d paid more attention to the crewponies in her practice mech.
Twilight finally spotted the windlass beside the radio set. As she walked towards it, Rainbow Dash’s dangling combat boots smacked her hard in the back of her head. The antenna retracted as soon as she released the windlass. Rainbow Dash dropped back down from the hatch, screwing it closed against a rain of dirt and splinters. “Okay, they can’t see us now!”
Another loud explosion shook the trotter, this time much farther weaker. They had lost their accuracy. Only a bit of dirt shot through the now half-closed viewport, the stormtrotter not losing any speed as Pinkie avoided any openings in the forest. Surely the Blastoderm’s lookout pegasi would spot them if they took any cleared path.
Twilight exhaled heavily as she sat back down into the commander’s chair, pushing her dust-covered goggles up onto her forehead. Her white shirt was now as brown as her boots, which had enough pebbles inside them to pave a sidewalk. She had rarely felt so satisfied with herself; it was the sensation that you could never get from practice or books. She had been in a real battle. All those times she took her four-legger around the castle felt like foal’s play, and this was real!
Rainbow Dash hovered above Pinkie Pie, peering through the viewport. Both of their faces were caked with sweat and dirt, and a bit of blood streamed down Rainbow Dash’s temple from a gash above her right eyebrow. These were the mares that Twilight Sparkle wanted to be like all her life: intelligent, strong, audacious commanders.
“I vividly remember suggesting we take motorcycles, Pinkie,” Rainbow Dash said with a grin.
Pinkie barked a huge laugh, still keeping her face forward, carefully navigating through the trees. “Hahaha! Come on, Dashie! Don’t like the extra protection? That last broadside would’ve blown us all the way to Manehatten in motorcycles!”
“We’d already be halfway to Manehatten with the extra speed!” she playfully retorted.
Twilight looked back towards the Blastoderm from the hatch. The explosions from the dreadnought’s shots were much farther away. They had escaped their eye for the moment.
“The sun was rising from behind the dreadnought,” Twilight said. “So that means we’re heading.... west! Wait, west? What’s in the west?”
“The Everfree Alps, of course!” Pinkie Pie replied.
“Neutral territory,” Rainbow Dash added. “We’ll be safe there.”
The intercom popped to life. “Loaded and ready, countess!” Scootaloo’s muffled voice said.
Twilight turned to face the gunner’s cabin. “Spike and Scootaloo would’ve been much more helpful up here with us. I doubt the armor on that dreadnought would even dent from our machine guns, and they’re much too far from us to get an accurate hit with the cannon.”
“Yeah, good point, princess,” Pinkie said. “But they’re not for shooting the dreadnought! Big scary ships like that NEVER travel by their lonesome! They probably have little baby motor scouts following our footsteps.”
“Oh, right,” Twilight said. She was beginning to come down off the excitement of the battle, and she couldn’t stop her back legs from shaking. All she had done was turn a few cranks and blind Pinkie Pie; the others took care of everything important. The back of her head was still sore from where Rainbow Dash’s hanging boots had smacked her; a reminder that she had mostly just gotten in the way.
She sunk back into the commander’s chair. The emptiness of her situation was coming back. She wanted to say something, anything, but silence gripped her throat like a twine noose, her vision blurring. This attack had swept away all doubt.
Her parents were dead. Both gone forever. Father wouldn’t be here for any impassioned speech, wouldn’t be here to commend the squad for alluding the dreadnought, wouldn’t be here to urge them forward. Twilight finally began to see through Pinkie and Dash’s smiles. They were in even worse despair than her. She couldn’t blame them; they had just taken responsibility for her life. And on top of that, they had two of Equestria’s mightiest empires hunting after them. Twilight Sparkle could only sit there, blinking away tears.
A burst of gunfire broke out about a hundred feet ahead of the trotter. Pinkie turned the trotter to its side as Rainbow Dash moved back towards the ceiling hatch. “Sounds like motorcycles,” she said. “They have a garage on the Blastoderm.”
A shower of bullets assaulted the flank of the trotter, much louder than any spray of pebbles and dirt. Twilight imagined the bullets piercing through the viewport and tearing into her flesh and bones, and she got another small burst of adrenaline. Her sadness lifted almost instantaneously.... This is what I was born to do, she thought.
A huge *BOOOM* rattled the trotter yet again, and a cloud of smoke rose across the viewport, causing Twilight to go into a coughing fit. She thought that they had been hit, but a huge explosion in the distance shook the thought away, followed by the cracking of trees and the cries of ponies.
“Target hit!” the intercom barked.
“Wait, that was OUR cannon?” Twilight asked, bewildered.
“Twilight, you know how to fire a Cyklop machine gun?” Rainbow Dash asked. Twilight could barely fire a hunting rifle, but she already found herself standing to follow Rainbow Dash to the gunner’s cabin.
My Little Airship: Part 4
The bird let loose in Eastern skies
Returning fondly home,
Ne’er stoops to earth her wing, nor flies
Where idle warblers roam;
But high she shoots through air and light,
Above all low delay,
Where nothing earthly bounds her flight,
No shadow dims her way.
Oh that I had Wings
The storm had just come over the airfield when the ground ponies began to reel Applejack’s safety harness back in. She could see them scrambling about on the ground, securing the hangar tents with extra spikes and getting the recruits indoors. Five burly earth ponies struggled to crank the ascender’s winch, pulling Applejack quickly and steadily towards the ground. There were about ten ponies ready to grab the Buxley’s tentacles when it came within reach. The unicorns surely couldn’t use their telekinesis to pull her in; that would just scare the Buxley into an unstoppable dive.
The creature’s tentacles coiled up as the first drops of cold rain struck. Applejack was still a few hundred feet in the air, and she wondered how long the Buxley would tolerate this shower before making its dreaded dive. The rain fell at a slant, hitting Applejack’s dangling lower hooves from beneath the cover of her medusa.
“It’s all right, sweetie,” Applejack cooed to the panicking beastie. “”We’ll be on the ground soon enough.” But what if soon enough ain’t SOON ENOUGH? she thought.
A strong wind repelled the medusa backwards like a giant sail. Applejack began to rock in her flaccid saddle, her borrowed uniform retaining alot of water. Then the safety cord snapped tight, roughly yanking the airbeast towards the ground, and almost giving Applejack whiplash. She was now floating above the clearing prison yard, the guards beneath her completely oblivious to the giant purple monster just above them.
“Aw Luna, this ain’t good,” Applejack muttered. At least the beastie still had enough composure to stay aloft, swelling up to try to regain its lift. The cable began to loosen; the skilled wrangler ponies were giving them some slack to get them where they wanted. But that safety line was still alot of weight for the Buxley to carry. Applejack considered emptying the water ballast, but then she’d have nothing to save herself if the Buxley went into a dive.
The cable began to scrape across the prison rooftops, loudly ripping off shingles and drain pipes along the way. Applejack’s heart dropped when she saw the cord tangle around a smoking chimney. Oh, THAT’S why they’re lettin’ out the cable, Applejack thought. Tryin’ ta keep away from the fire!
If even a single spark from one of those chimneys floated its way up to the Buxley, it would ignite the beastie’s hydrogen, and they’d go down in a massive fireball that would make Celestia proud. The Buxley’s tentacles coiled up even tighter as the cord snagged once again.
Applejack gripped the ballast rope tightly between her teeth. She might survive landing on the prison roof from this height, but the razor wire fences and shingled rooftops would frappé the beastie. And it would be all her fault for not warning the ground ponies before the storm came in. Yeah, great air sense, AJ, she thought to herself.
“All right, beastie!” Applejack shouted. “You an’ me are gonna get outta this jam, but we gotta work together! Ah’ll make sure we don’t splat into a buildin’ like a chunked pumpkin if ya promise NOT TO PANIC!” The beastie expelled a loud bubble of hydrogen in response. “Ah’ll take that as a yes!” Applejack pulled the ballast cord, spilling the heavy water into the storm.
The Buxley began to ascend again.
The ponies on the ground gave an excited cheer as the wranglers started to reel them in against the wind. The captain was watching over them, barking orders from the carriage. The tigeres- ques at the front of the carriage looked hilariously unamused, their hair soaking wet like large white house cats after their bath.
The medusa finally made its way back over the training grounds, safely away from the prison’s smoking chimneys and lethal fences. But suddenly, the wind shifted, pulling the Buxley in a half-circle towards the other end of the Scrubs. The beast let out a horrible, dragging shriek.
“No no no!” Applejack shouted. “We’re almost there, beastie! Just a little further!”
But the Buxley was sick of being thrown around by the wind and the safety cord. Its enormous torso began to contract, venting hydrogen into the air. Its tentacles coiled as tightly as rattlesnakes. Applejack’s stomach rose up into her throat. She was falling....
The wind refused to let up, changing their descent’s path without any pattern or purpose. The Buxley swung about like a poorly folded paper airplane, with Applejack along for the whole ride. They had to be heavier than the air by now, Applejack figured.
The ground ponies could only watch helplessly, the captain ducking into the carriage as the erratic cable sliced overhead. If they tried to crank her in anymore, they’d pull the airbeast into the concrete.
Big Macintosh was galloping across the field beneath Applejack, shouting something that she couldn’t quite make out. She could recognize his voice, but the words’ meanings were whipped halfway across Equestria before they could reach her. Applejack was now but thirty feet above the ground, which sped by as if she was on a speeding carriage. She peeled off her wet, heavy jacket and tossed it to the ground, Big Macintosh stopping to pick it up.
She was heading in the direction of the prison again. At this speed, crashing into its tan brick wall would turn them into meaty, scarlet, post-modern murals. Her hooves explored the pilot’s rig, looking for a way to release herself from the harness. She had a much better chance of surviving by dropping into the grass than taking her chances with the wall. Plus, with her weight gone, the Buxley would be light enough to rise over the prison.
Of course, that mud-brained coxswain forgot to show her how to release herself from the rig. She had precious seconds to find some way to- Bingo! A knot swung over her head; the cable that bound the Buxley to the earth! If she could set the Huxley free of its bound, it might still have enough hydrogen to carry them over the wall.
Applejack struggled to untie the soggy, swollen knot. It was a simple knot (Applejack had learned sailor’s knots from riding in her Pa’s balloon), but the pressure of being seconds from smashing into the shining stone wall was getting to her. Finally, her hooves pushed the cable’s working end free. The knot unraveled, the rope twisting like rubber, skinning her hooves as it slipped free from the steel ring.
As the weight of three hundred feet of thick, soaking rope dropped to the ground, the airbeast soared into the air, missing the prison wall with only a few feet to spare. Applejack’s breath was caught as she spotted a chimney below. But any sparks that may have made their way into the sky were whisked away by the gust of the growing storm. Seconds later, the Buxley cleared the southern prison buildings.
Applejack could hear the ponies on the ground cheering for her, stomping the ground in celebration. She looked down and immediately spotted Big Macintosh, cupping both hooves to his face and shouting something, presumably “Great job, AJ! Ya followed mah plan perfectly!”
“That was my buckin’ plan, ya thick-skulled cacafuego!” she shouted back, sticking her rope-burned hooves into her mouth. Of course, her plan had landed herself in the middle of a storm, strapped to a traumatized Buxley, soaring across Canterlot with few-to-no spots to land.
An’ how the hay am I s’posed ta land this beastie, anyhow? Applejack thought. As far as she knew, nopony had ever free-ballooned in a Buxley and lived to to write down instructions. “Well, I'm boned.... Least I'm flyin’, though!”
The wind died down and the storm was quiet....
Free-riding in the Buxley felt just like riding in a hot-air balloon. You truly are the wind that bears you; harsh yet gentle, fleeting yet motionless. Together you float beyond all imagination and reality, wherever the alicorns dictate. The Buxley would make slight rotations due to the turning clouds around it, but the real issue was the flickering in the distance. Little sparks from a chimney is one thing, but lightning is something else entirely. Applejack looked down and watched Canterlot pass by beneath her; all big Bucktorian houses and twisting highways, huge factories spewing no smoke from their sealed-off chimneys.
Her Pa used to describe Canterlot to her back before King Colton Vines turned it into a Dawnist-dominated kingdom. Smog used to almost entirely block out the sunshine because of all the burning coal from the factories. Ponies would have to carry torches around to see their own noses! Even the animals themselves began to adapt their colors to the newly blackened environment.
But all of that changed a few years before Applejack was born. The winding gears and roaring boilers were replaced by wondrous works of blood, flesh, bone, fur, and brains. These days the only chimney smoke came from ovens, and the storm had all but cleared it from the air.
Applejack could see fabricated beasties great and small wherever she looked. Over the royal Buckinghoof Palace a flock of steel-talon falcons patrolled in repeating spiral patterns, carrying nets that would turn any Cloudsdalian Songbird scout into cubes of meat. Messenger parrots flew graciously across the sky to their varying destinations, totally unhindered by the rain. The streets were full of carriages drawn by an assortment of great mammals, and some of the creatures were the carriages. This small storm, which had threatened both her career and her life, had barely even burdened the capital city.
The weather pegasi must have spotted her, since the storm began to break apart above her Buxley. The clouds began to spread, and the Buxley instinctively edged its way toward the sunlight. Applejack stretched her legs in the warmth, squeezing as much water as she could out of her damp, freezing clothes. Probly shouldn’ta tossed that jacket she thought. The houses and creatures were getting smaller and smaller, the Buxley climbing higher and higher as it dried off. Surely the captain had lost sight of her by now.
Applejack frowned. To descend in a balloon, you vented hot air from the top. But Buxleys were simple creatures, never designed to be set free from their tethers. She could do nothing but wait to be rescued.... like a helpless filly.
“Ey!” Applejack shouted. “Beastie!”
The tentacles curled a bit from the outburst, but that was all.
“Pay attention ta me!”
Applejack was getting a bit irate. The creature had been so easy to scare earlier! Apparently, one angry little pony didn’t measure up to a rolling thunderstorm. Applejack began to jump and squirm in her saddle.
“Come on, ya fat, purple, veiny coccydynia!” she shouted, kicking her legs. “I'm gettin’ real sick a’ lookin’ up at ya! Now TAKE ME TO THE BUCKIN’ GROUND!!”
The creature’s tentacles stretched out in all directions, soaking in all of the sunlight.
“Faan-tastic...” Applejack grumbled. The medusa jellyfish made another soft sighing noise as it passed through a particularly bright patch of sun, expanding its airbag to dry off. Applejack felt herself drifting even higher.
She groaned, looking at the clear skies of Ponyville in the distance. Long past Ponyville would be the shore, and several hundred miles past that would be the glorious skyscrapers of Manehatten. She truly hoped that somepony would rescue her before she drifted that far.
All Applejack had wanted for the past four years was to fly again, like before Pa’s accident. Well, ah got my wish she thought. And now I'm marooned. The wind began to shift, blowing her Buxley south towards Delagrange’s Republic of Prance. What a first day.
Applejack’s saddle started to vibrate. As she awoke from her nap, she glared up at her nervous looking beastie. “Finally gettin’ bored?” She pulled out her pocketwatch. It was noon, which meant she’d been flying for over six hours now. They had left the gray clouds of the capital long ago, and were now over the long, blue Western Equestrian Channel.
Applejack yawned as she stretched her legs. “Saddle’s ain’t built for this kinda travel,” she muttered to herself as she rubbed her lower back with one hoof. Despite her growing thirst and her unfortunate predicament, she could only smile softly as she looked across the amazing blue sky and the tall mountains in the distance.
Then she saw the Buxley’s tentacles coiling around her. “What now...” she muttered. If it were a flock of wandering steel-talons or a Clanker airplane, she’d have welcomed the attack, so long as it got her out of the sky. She’d much rather crash into the concrete-hard Channel than dehydrate up in the sky.
Applejack looked ahead, but the sky was barren, except for the field of gray clouds far behind. But she felt a trembling in the leather cords of her pilot’s rig and could hear the thrum of propellers in the air.
She looked back, and her eyes widened. An enormous scaled creature emerged from the clouds, its coffee-brown body and enormous yellow eyes glistening in the sunlight. It appeared to be a reptile, but its head and body formed an oval, similar to a zeppelin, and it had a silver gondola on its stomach. Its extensive wings slowly flapped by its side, pushing it through the sky along with several dozen metal propellers attached to its body. Why, it must have been 800 feet long!
The beast was truly colossal- larger than Lady Sparkler’s Cathedral, longer than the oceanic dreadnought Vulpecula that she saw in Hoofington. The flanks of the amazing creature pulsed with the motion of its cilia, and symbiotic bats and birds swarmed the air around it. Its tail must have stretched out an additional hundred feet behind it. No creature like that could have ever evolved naturally; this was clearly the wondrous product of Canterlot’s boffins.
Applejack could only assume that it was here to help. She just didn’t expect anything so big! And her Buxley clearly didn’t expect anything so terrifying. It let out an unhappy whistling sound as its tentacles retracted into its body.
“Oh, its allright, beastie,” she called softly. “They’re here to help us!”
The airship drew closer and closer, until Applejack could make out the foot-tall letters under the bridge windows. “....Vizzerdrix.”
Applejack gulped. “Heh, and darn LEGENDARY, these friends are!” The Vizzerdrix had been the first of the great hydrogen breathers to rival the Wonderbolt’s zeppelins. There were a handful of larger creatures fabricated since then, but no other had yet made the 13,000-mile trip to Marelaysia and back, breaking Wonderbolt records the whole way.
The Vizzerdrix’s body was made from life threads of a dragon (which stirred up a bit of controversy since dragons are sentient), and hundreds of other species were tangled into its design, countless creatures fitting together like the gears of a clocktower. Flocks of birds swarmed around it, gathering insects to feed the beast. Applejack saw message rodents and other beasties scampering across its scales.
According to her history textbooks, the great hydrogen breathers were modeled on the islands of Isla Hufuemul, where Charms Dawning made his famous discoveries of combining life threads with harnessed chaotic magic. The Vizzerdrix wasn’t one beastie, but an entire ecosystem in a delicate balance that required constant supervision.
The engines changed pitch, nudging the creature’s nose upward. The airbeast obeyed, cilia along its flanks undulating like a sea of grass in the wind; an army of tiny oars rowing backward, slowing the Vizzerdrix almost to a halt. The huge shape slowly drifted overhead, blotting out the sun. Its underbelly was all muddled grays, camouflage for the clouds.
Applejack stared up, totally entranced. They had actually sent this fantastic creature to rescue her! The Buxley began to whimper, wondering where the sun had disappeared to. “It’s okay, beastie. He ain’t gonna hurt ya.”
Applejack heard calls from the gondola. A rope unfurled from above, hanging only a few yards from her face. Another followed, then a dozen more, until Applejack was surrounded by a barrier of swaying ropes. Applejack reached out for one, but the width of the Buxley kept them out of hoof’s reach. She tried to swing towards them in her hanging saddle, but this only made the Buxley shoot downward.
“Oh, yeah! Now ya wanna go down, huh?” she complained. “Well, too damn bad! Ya had yer chance!”
The Vizzerdrix’s engines changed pitch again, and the dangling ropes reappeared, still out of reach. But then the engines set up a grinding pattern, on-off, on-off. The ropes began to swing in rhythm until they were in reach. Now that was one clever pony piloting up there!
Applejack lunged out and grabbed a rope, tying it to the hook over her rig. “Wait, what?” Applejack muttered. Were they going to pull her up? But that would flip her Buxley upside down!
But the line didn’t pull at all. After a few seconds a cream colored message mouse made its way down the line. Its tiny pink hands gripped the thick rope as if it were the hanging branch of a weeping willow. Then it spoke up, its deep, masculine voice spoke with a Canterlot-like elegance.
“Hello, Miss Applejack.” The mouse let out a hearty chuckle. Applejack almost returned the greeting. Of course, the creature wouldn’t understand her. It was only repeating a recorded message from one of the Vizzerdrix’s officers.
“I send you welcome from the crew of the Vizzerdrix,” it continued. “We understand that your Buxley was set free from its cord to avoid disaster. We apologize for taking so long to pick you up; thunderstorms and the sort...” It made a noise like a colt clearing his throat, but the mouse’s curious expression stayed solid, as if it were just another word. “But we’re here at last. We’ll be bringing you aboard on the dorsal side, of course.”
The lizard paused, and Applejack contemplated what ‘dorsal’ might mean. The mouse stared at her blankly, its small, black, adorable eyes looking about her pilot’s rig. “Oh yes, I'm told you’re a fresh recruit. I expect you don’t know standard procedure. Well, it’s very simple. We’ll drop below you, then bring you aboard from beneath you with the dorsal winch. Questions?” The message mouse looked at her expectantly.
“Um, no sir,” Applejack responded. “I'm ready ta come aboard.” She wouldn’t dare ask what ‘dorsal’ meant now. When she stopped talking, the mouse waited for a moment, then scampered back up the rope to the gondola to give her message to whatever pony was in charge there. A few moments later, the ropes were all lifted back up except for the one attached to the Buxley. The rope was instead given what felt like a quarter-mile of slack as the engines of the Vizzerdrix sprang back up to life.
The ship pulled back against the wind, so the sun broke out from behind its face, almost blinding Applejack. The airship dropped, venting an ocean of hydrogen all at once with a sound like a rushing waterfall. It continued to descend until the officers in the bridge windows were totally even with her. One proud looking gray colt smiled and gave her a salute, and Applejack smartly returned it. The Vizzerdrix dropped still farther, and the Buxley whined a bit when one of the dragon’s great yellow eyes drew level with them.
Applejack was watching keenly, noting how the airship’s huge harness wrapped around its body, holding all of the gondolas in place. They were all connected by a series of thick ropes, much like a sailboat. Strange looking six-legged dogs climbed alongside the ship, sniffing at the Vizzerdrix’s scales. Those must have been the hydrogen sniffers, looking for leaks in the creature’s hydrogen sack.
When the ship dropped below her, Applejack saw that the other end of her rope was now attached to a winch on the creature’s tailbone. So ‘dorsal’ was just military speak for ‘rear’.
Figures; the boffins hate regular pony talk. They replace as many words as they can with nonsense for whatever reason, and Applejack had to pick up on it quick if she was going to be riding aboard the Vizzerdrix.
The winch was much smaller than the one used by the ponies at Wormware, most likely to reduce the weight. Two ponies cranked it, drawing the slack of the rope in quite quickly. Soon the Buxley’s tentacles were being secured down, and Applejack stumbled onto the solid scales of the Vizzerdrix’s back. She regained her legging as she heard a familiar voice from behind.
Applejack tried to stand up straight but pain shot down her spine as she turned around. There stood a tall light yellow earth pony in a navy blue uniform. “Hey, Braeburn!” She had almost forgotten that her cousin Braeburn was a Coxswain serving aboard the Vizzerdrix. Perhaps he could put a good word in for her with the captain!
“Y’all right there?” Braeburn asked as he helped secure the Buxley to the ship. “Ya musta been up in the sky for darn near seven hours!”
“Yeah, I'm okay,” she replied, stretching backwards to crack her spine. “Just a lil’ sore....”
Braeburn laughed as he swung a leg around Applejack’s shoulder. In fact, all the ponies there looked quite happy with their work. And why wouldn’t they be? They were serving on the greatest ship in the whole Dawnist Alliance, and it wasn’t often that they were called upon to rescue boneheaded recruits from the sky.
“Well, yer Buxley looks okay,” Braeburn said. “Not too many middies spend their first day in the sky!”
“Well, I ain’t a middy yet, Braeburn”
“That’s MISTER Braeburn,” he said sharply. “Up on this ship, we all gotta follow procedure, Miss Applejack. S’pecially with all that trouble brewin’ in the east.”
Applejack stared at him blankly. “Uh, trouble, Brae-, ah mean, Mr. Braeburn?”
“Oh, yeah. I guess you ain’t heard yet. Some archduke an’ his wife got killed down in Trottin’ham last night. An without Celestia to calm ‘em down, them Clankers’ll probably start instigatin’ a fight with every damn Dawnist nation in Equestria....”
Applejack blinked. “Uh, sorry, sir. I don’t think I get it.”
“Yeah, me neither,” Braeburn sighed. “But we’ve been put on alert. Now that we picked you up, we’re headin’ straight to Prance. I'm expectin’ you’ll be ridin’ along with us for a few days. Hope ya don’t mind.” Braeburn slyly grinned at Applejack.
Applejack tried her best not to squeak with giddiness. As she began to feel the blood flow through here legs once again, she could feel the rumbles of the engines in the airbeast’s scales. From the long spine of the Vizzerdrix, its long brown wings flapping into oblivion, the sky was enormous in all directions.
A few days, Braeburn had said. A hundred more hours in this perfect sky. Applejack saluted her cousin with a wide grin. “No sir. I think I can manage a few days.”
My Little Airship: Part 5
Twilight Sparkle awoke to a loud static-like noise coming from inside the stormtrotter.
She struggled to stand in the pile of wood chips that had served as her bed the previous night. Sunlight streamed through the cracks in the decaying walls to illuminate the dust floating in the air. Twilight sat up and blinked, staring at the thick layer of dirt that coated her expensive piloting uniform. She had never slept in a barn before last night. Of course, she’d experienced many new things in these past few weeks on the run.
Pinkie Pie, Spike, and Scootaloo were asleep close by, all of them snoring loudly. The stormtrotter stood at half its full height in the barn, its peak about five feet from the ceiling. Twilight had managed to maneuver the machine inside last night, shuffling in ever so carefully as not to tear down the whole structure. The strange chatter crackled again through the walker’s open viewport. Countess Rainbow Dash must have been messing with the radio.
Twilight jumped from her improvised bed to the leg of the stormtrotter. Her bare hooves made little noise as she scaled the trotter’s armor. When she reached the top of the machine, she quietly peeked through the open hatch. Rainbow Dash was sitting in the commander’s chair with brass headphones to both ears, her back to the hatch. She was wearing only her maroon button-up shirt and tight, light-brown slacks. Quietly, Twilight began to lower herself into the chamber when-
“Watch your step, princess.”
In surprise, Twilight’s lost her balance and fell seven feet to the ground of the cabin face first. She sat up and tried to shake off her embarrassment. Rainbow Dash giggled and walked up to the young mare, messing up her mane with one hoof. “Haha, it’s okay, Twilight! You’ll get one by me someday.” Twilight quickly rose to her hooves looking puzzled. Hm, she’s in a good mood. Twilight sat down in the chair next to where Rainbow Dash was working and looked back at her. The countess had dark bags beneath her eyes, her mane was unkempt, her wings hung limply out of the holes in her shirt’s back, and she was still sharp enough to catch Twilight while wearing headphones.
“Didn’t you get any sleep at all?” Twilight asked, examining the radio.
“Yeah, right,” Rainbow Dash replied as she sat back down. “Pinkie’s not too bad, but my dumb flank had to bring along the two loudest snorers in the gua-*cough*cough*”. The countess took a long drink from her canteen.
Twilight studied the notes that Rainbow Dash had been taking. “Is there any news on the pursuit?”
Rainbow Dash screwed her canteen shut. “Can’t tell. Way too much static. All the clear channels are just saying the same thing. Trottingham’s getting ready to blow Appaloosa off the continent.”
“Maybe they’ve switched their priorities,” Twilight hopefully suggested. “They’ve figured that chasing us is just a fruitless endeavor.” The first week, tanks and trotters had scoured the mountainside and swept the forest trying to find them. But the most they’ve seen in the past few days were a few patrolling pegasi squads flying by.
“Oh, don’t think you’re not a priority,” Rainbow Dash replied. “The whole point of attacking your parents was to start a war. Trottingham and Cloudsdale have been eyeballing that sweet piece of real estate for decades. Now that the war’s almost here, you’re one of the only ponies who can stop it.”
“Oh, exactly HOW to they expect me to stop it?” Twilight asked, jumping to her hooves. “Look at me! I have no parents, no title, no money, and my coat’s been shedding like CRAZY!” Twilight itched the back of her ear with her hind leg, small conglomerations of hair falling to the ground. “What do they expect me to pull off?”
Twilight stared at Rainbow Dash expectantly. She awkwardly looked around the cabin, the silence encompassing her. Rainbow Dash spoke up. “Umm.... We have some money.” Twilight sighed and sat back down in her chair. “Look, we wouldn’t take you without a plan. It’s just not time for me to tell you what it is yet. I promised Nightlight I’d wait until we got you to safety.”
In the last two weeks Twilight had learned to start a fire without magic, how to replace the engine’s glow plugs, and how to track their movement using the constellations. She could expertly move the trotter beneath bridges and into barns, and she could clean the trotter’s machine guns inside and out. Pinkie Pie had even begun to give her cooking lessons.
What was odd was that she hadn’t shown a single sign of despair since the first day. Not once. She had managed to lock her misery deep inside herself where it belonged. The only time it would surface was at night, when she was on watch. And even then she would keep her tears inside.
“Oh, so this was all part of my father’s plan?” Twilight asked sarcastically.
“Most of it,” Rainbow Dash said dismissively. “Now, how ‘bout you go wake everyone up, and after breakfast we can dust off your saber. We haven’t had a fencing lesson in weeks.”
A smile finally grew across Twilight’s face. Almost nothing in the world would make her feel better right then than some steel in her hoof. Had the countess finally warmed up to her?
“All right, GET ON WITH IT!”
Twilight hopped up on her back hooves and held her saber out in front of her. The foam-like leather inside the saber’s handle compressed around Twilight’s hoof without restricting her blood flow. Rainbow Dash flew around her in a circle, inspecting Twilight’s stance in complete silence.
“Hmm....” Twilight could keep this stance for as long as it took. Ever since she started her lessons as a young filly, she thought fencing would be exciting. But most of her lessons consisted of staying completely still for hours with Rainbow Dash staring her down. Every time Twilight’s hooves would begin to shake, the Countess would taunt her.
“Not awful,” Rainbow Dash said as she stuffed her hoof into her saber handle. “Okay, we’ll start slow. Get ready....Quinte!” Rainbow Dash stepped forward and sliced at Twilight. She stepped back and deflected the Countesses attack. “Again! Faster!.... Now seconde! Come on, you look like a peg-legged pirate! Sixte!”
Eventually, Rainbow Dash stopped calling out the parries and let Twilight improvise. Steel met steel with bright clanks. The shuffling of their hooves kicked up a cloud of dirt, which gave their battleground a golden haze as the sunlight met the overcast of dust.
Twilight had never fenced without armor on. Then again, she had also never fenced without her servants standing by with fresh towels and water. It felt quite liberating. Small mice carelessly scrambled by, and the stormtrotter loomed behind them like some ancient golem ready to spring into motion. Twilight felt her focus sharpening, especially with nopony there to watch. Pinkie Pie and the others were inside the stormtrotter checking over the engines, so it was completely silent, other than their swords clashing.
Suddenly, Rainbow Dash began to hover several feet in the air, her onslaught not halting for a moment. “Why Appaloosa?” she asked.
“W-wha?” Twilight asked. Rainbow Dash swatted away Twilight’s half-prepared parry and smacked her across the shoulder. Twilight yelped in pain, dropping her saber to the ground.
Rainbow Dash shook her head. “Two words, and you’re head’s on a platter,” she said. Twilight rubbed her shoulder as she levitated her saber off the ground. Twilight scowled as she re-adjusted her saber, then nodded for the fight to continue.
Still a few feet in the air, Rainbow Dash began with a vicious flurry of blows. Twilight was slowly being pushed towards the back wall. In a fencing duel, any contact with your opponent’s sword ended a legal attack. But Rainbow Dash was relentless, ignoring every parry and using brute force to push Twilight back.
“WHY APPALOOSA?” the Countess repeated.
“B-because they’re allied with Stalliongrad!” Twilight said. Rainbow Dash suddenly ended her assault, turning around and giving Twilight a few yards of space. Sweat was running down Twilight’s face and into her eyes as she tried to catch her breath.
Rainbow Dash took up her stance in the middle of the barn. “Done already?” she taunted. Twilight approached with caution, her saber prepared. The Countess attacked again. Her colorful mane stuck to her forehead with sweat, not hiding an ounce of the chilling confidence in her radiant pink eyes. This didn’t seem like fencing at all, Twilight realized. The Countess had told the young Princess several stories of her defeating and sometimes slaying her opponents in swordfights when she was an Ensign for the Cloudsdale Songbirds. This fight was not unlike how Twilight pictured the Countess during her stories.
Twilight narrowed her concentration, her awareness running down the length of her saber. She was full of adrenaline, and if Rainbow Dash wanted a swordfight, Twilight Sparkle would give her one. She felt her saber the same as she felt the stormtrotter; not as an instrument, but as an extension of her being.
“And who’s Stalliongrad’s closest ally?” Rainbow Dash asked, not sounding even slightly out of breath.
“Canterlot!” Twilight replied.
“Nope!” Rainbow Dash dropped back to the ground, landing an illegal blow on Twilight’s back leg.
“OW!” Twilight fell to the ground and rubbed her wound. “For Celestia’s sake, Dash! Are you trying to teach me how to swordfight or the details of Equestria’s web of treaties?”
Rainbow Dash smugly grinned. “Well, you’re clearly not very knowledgeable in either. Now, who’s their closest ally?”
Twilight stood and raised her sword. Was this an exercise in focus, or just one of the Countess’ little games? “Prance is, I guess.”
“Don’t focus on my sword! How do you expect to best an opponent you can’t even look in the eyes?” Twilight took her change of subject as a sign that she was correct. Rainbow Dash lunged, and Twilight parried, counterattacking for the first time in the fight, only barely missing Rainbow Dash’s left wing.
“Review!” Rainbow Dash said, her saber still flashing. “Trottingham invades Appaloosa. What next?”
“Stalliongrad gets involved to save Appaloosa.” As Twilight spoke, somehow her mind stayed focused on the play of swords. She felt strange fighting without a mask. She had met Trottinghammish officers who considered using masks a sign of cowardice. They wore their many facial scars as proudly as their medals of heroism.
“Then?” Rainbow Dash asked.
“Cloudsdale takes the opportunity to attack Stalliongrad. Clankers protecting Clankers.”
“Uh...” Twilight almost lost her balance, she’d realized. Too much of her body was vulnerable. She twisted her hooves as she tried to mount some sort of offense. “I guess Canterlot and the Buckbeaks could find their way in. All out Equestrian war.”
Rainbow Dash dropped to the ground and lunged, wrapping her saber around Twilight’s and ripping it right off her hoof. Steel flashed as the saber flew across the barn, missing the chin hairs of a passing goat by inches. Twilight fell backwards in shock, landing on her back. The countess hovered over her, saber still in hoof, snickering at her fallen opponent. Twilight was breathless, struggling to get back on her hooves.
“Honestly,” Twilight said. “What was the point of this game? Am I to magically end the war with a sword, or with my mind?”
Rainbow Dash lowered her saber and helped the Princess up. “Both,” she said bluntly. “You were born into this world to play -and to win- the game of Equestria. Your political stance is just as important as your heartbeat.”
“So this is my war...” Twilight said grimly.
“No, Twilight. This war belongs to thousands of scared little ponies full of hatred and confusion. They would have found a way to fight it with or without your parents. We’re gonna make sure that neither of them comes out on top of the other.”
“How?” Twilight asked.
Rainbow Dash snickered. “We’ll see.”
She eased the saunters forward and felt the stormtrotter’s right leg shift.
“Yeah, that’s it, Twilight,” Pinkie Pie said from her side. “Slower... slower... slo- TOO SLOW!” Twilight jerked the controls in surprise, bumping both ponies’ foreheads on the control panel. Rainbow Dash jumped, splashing her lukewarm coffee all over her face. They both grimaced at Pinkie Pie. “Heh heh, umm... a little slower.”
Twilight nudged the controls forward again, struggling to maneuver the stormtrotter out of the small barn. At least the flickering gauges started to make more sense to her. With another nudge she’d done it. The open viewport was lined up with a dilapidated opening in the barn. The beautiful 4pm sunshine shone into the cabin of the trotter, rolling yellow fields of wheat stretching out before them. A harvesting combine in the shape of a centipede painted the field in the distance, a dozen ponies and two tractors following to collect the bundled grain.
The centipede’s silver luster began to fade as it slowly made its way across the field. Finally, Scootaloo’s voice crackled on the intercom, “That’s the last one gone, Countess!” Corporal Scootaloo had the eyes of a seasoned sniper. A few weeks ago she was on her way to commanding her own trotter, and Spike had been the best young engineer in the house. But they had both given that up.
Twilight had finally come to understand everything her team had sacrificed for her: their ranks, families, and futures. If they were caught, they would be called deserters and receive the death penalty. They would probably get rid of Twilight in a more quiet matter, as not to cause a commotion. It made sense to bring Scootaloo and Spike, though. Twilight trusted Spike implicitly, and Scootaloo was the Countess’ prized apprentice. Nopony else in all of the Clanker Entente could have done the job.
“Ready to give these engines a workout, Princess?” Pinkie asked. Twilight nodded as Pinkie leaned in closer. Her voice dropped. “There’s so much that these machine can teach you. I’ve seen and heard so many things from behind these saunters. There are secrets within secrets within secrets! Lemme show you....” As silly as Pinkie may be sometime, she was still a magnificent teacher, and she was still one of Twilight’s best friends.
Twilight had never trotted at high speeds before, but was glad to finally be piloting under the sun. She had been conditioned from birth to see the sun as her ally. And really, trotter falls weren’t so bad. A few bruises and cuts, maybe, but Pinkie Pie could get it back up on its feet.
As the engines pulsed faster, the smell of their exhaust mixed with dust and hay. Twilight and Pinkie strapped on their goggles, wrapped their scarves around their necks, and eased the machine forward. Wood creaked as the trotter pushed through the doors and into the fresh air.
“Smooth as butter,” Pinkie Pie muttered. They were in the open now. Twilight brought the stormtrotter to its full height, its engines running to their maximum. She urged it forward, stretching the metal legs further with every step. Then came the moment where walking turned to running, and finally to trotting: both feet in the air at once, the cabin shaking with every step. Twilight heard the crops being shredded underfoot. A scouting pegasi could easily spot the huge footprints during the day, but the harvesting centipede would erase the steps by nightfall.
This had been the fastest that Twilight had ever traveled. Each ten-yard gallop seemed to stretch out over endless seconds, graceful in the vast size of the craft. The wind pouring through the viewport and washing away two weeks of dirt from Twilight’s mane felt absolutely glorious. The game of Equestria may have been her birthright, but piloting was her real purpose. No contest.
But as the forest approached, Twilight wondered if the trotter was moving too fast. How was she supposed to bring it to a halt. She eased back on the saunters a bit, and everything went to hell. The right foot planted too soon, and the machine began to tip forward. She brought the left leg down, but the trotter’s momentum carried it forward. She was forced to take another step, staggering like a drunken miner.
“Um, Twilight-” Pinkie Pie started.
“TAKE IT TAKE IT TAKE IT!” Twilight screamed. Pinkie Pie seized the saunters and twisted the trotter, stretching one leg out, tipping the whole machine back. The pilot’s chair spun, and Rainbow Dash swung wildly from the safety straps overhead, but Pinkie hadn’t moved an inch from the controls. The stormtrotter skidded onwards, one leg outstretched, its front foot ripping through the stalks of wheat. The machine gradually slowed, a last bit of momentum lifting it upright. Twilight watched dust and torn wheat swirl across the viewport. Her legs began to shake as she let out a sigh of relief.
“Woo hoo!” Pinkie shouted. “That was so sweet, Princess! Great job!” Pinkie clapped a confused Twilight on the back as Rainbow Dash fell back into her seat.
“B-but I almost tipped the trotter...” Twilight said, guilt in her eyes.
“Well, duh!” Pinkie said. “Everypony tips over the first time they trot!”
“I- wait, WHAT?!”
“Yeah, everypony falls. But you knew to pass the controls in time!”
Twilight scowled. Pinkie Pie was praising her like she just shot a zeppelin out of the sky! She wasn’t sure whether to hug Pinkie or buck her teeth out. She settled for coughing the dust out of her lungs, then taking back the controls. The trotter seemed undamaged, but her pride fell to pieces on the ground.
“You did so much better than we expected,” Pinkie continued. “Especially with all the extra weight in the cabi-” Pinkie shoved a hoof in her mouth.
“Extra weight?” Twilight asked.
Rainbow Dash sighed. “Go ahead, Pinkie. If you’re gonna teach the Princess how to do somersaults, I guess it might help to show her the extra cargo.”
Pinkie nodded, a wicked smile on her face. She quickly hopped over the commander’s chair and grabbed a crowbar off the tool shelf with her teeth. Twilight curiously walked up beside Pinkie Pie as she plowed the crowbar between two engineering panels, popping one up. Twilight’s jaw dropped. Instead of wires and gears, the panel was full of neat little rectangles of shining metal, each engraved with Celestia’s silhouette with a rising sun behind her.
“GORD!” Pinkie Pie shouted, crowbar still in mouth. “Armoss fife hundid pownss!”
“Told ya we had some money,” Rainbow Dash said from behind Twilight. “Your mother entrusted it to us as a part of your inheritance. We emptied your father’s safe as soon as we heard of his death.”
“So this was your big secret?” Twilight asked, her eyes still glued on the treasure. “Impressive.”
“No, this isn’t it,” Rainbow Dash said. “This was just an afterthought. My real secret’s in the Everfree Alps.” Pinkie Pie shut the panel as Twilight pulled herself back into the pilot’s chair, wondering what other secrets the Countess had hidden in the trotter.
As it turns out, Pinkie Pie had stopped the trotter in the middle of a stream bed. Twilight started down the side of the stream towards Vienz, the nearest city with any mechanical industry. If Twilight recalled correctly, Pinkie Pie mentioned that she grew up in the Vienz slums mastering Clanker contraptions. The trotter was in desperate need for kerosene and parts, but five hundred pounds of gold could buy them three new trotters if needed. The trick was not to give away their identities.
Twilight kept the machine in the trees along the stream bank. It was strange to think that in the morning, for the first time in over two weeks, Twilight would see other ponies. Her ponies. An entire town of commoners, none of which would realize that their Princess was among them.
She coughed again, and looked down at her dusty piloting uniform. Rainbow Dash was right- she was as filthy as a slumdog, now. Nopony would think she was anything special. Certainly not a mare with a vast fortune and a stormtrotter. Pinkie beside her was equally filthy, but still wore her usual smile.